The Duterte administration could succeed where others have failed in ending the longest-running guerilla war in Asia. But it has launched another war whose outcome is likely to be even more uncertain unless the problem it wants to address is also recognized as a consequence of the social and economic infirmities of a country in crisis.
Although correctly focusing on the growing list of casualties of the second war — without, however, the merest suggestion that the drug problem is rooted in the socioeconomic realities of Philippine society — much of the media are hardly helping resolve either. It’s painfully evident in, for example, what appears to be collective confusion over the terms being used in the ongoing peace talks between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Government of the Philippines (GPH).A cease-fire declaration suspends hostilities and can be declared by one or both sides engaged in armed conflict, while a truce is an agreement between the two sides to end hostilities for a period of time. But the editors and reporters of almost all the broadsheets in Manila used, and continue to use, the words truce and cease-fire interchangeably, as if the first also means the second.
Newspaper readers are understandably puzzled. Believing that a “truce” was in place, when President Rodrigo Duterte rescinded the cease-fire he had earlier declared, they thought the GPH was no longer honoring an agreement the NDFP had also signed into but which it had violated.
It was one more demonstration of how flawed information, no matter how seemingly minor, can generate major problems. Apparently, it now seems that certain commentators can’t tell the difference either between a cease-fire declared by both sides (the GPH and the NDFP) and when a final peace agreement has been reached.
Writing in one of the Manila-based newspapers, former senator Francisco Tatad, for example, refers to the cease-fire declaration by the NDFP that the GPH reciprocated by declaring its own cease-fire as “the Oslo Accord.” The former information minister of the unlamented Marcos fascist regime assumes that this fictitious “Oslo Accord”is the final peace agreement between the NDFP and the GPH, and declares that its success will depend on the NPA’s laying down its arms.
While peace advocates should welcome the unheard of conclusion of an “Accord” within the five days during which the peace talks resumed in Oslo, Norway last week, the reality is that what transpired in Oslo was just the first phase of what are likely to be protracted negotiations. Agreements have indeed been reached — but, so far, only on the reaffirmation of such previous protocols as the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) which were signed during the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos — and subsequently ignored by the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno S. C. Aquino III administrations.
It was also agreed to resume the next phase of the talks in October to discuss those socioeconomic and political reforms needed to address poverty, social injustice and other substantive issues. Although neither side has mentioned it, these discussions could more meaningfully also confront the causes of the drug problem. Among others, those causes appropriate reforms can remedy include the collusion of local officials and the police with the drug lords, and the hopelessness and lack of opportunities for advancement and better lives among the poor and powerless which drive some of them to illegal drugs for relief and escape.
The NPA’s laying down its guns therefore depends on whether an agreement is reached on those reforms. “The disposition of forces,” as in most peace negotiations in other parts of the globe, would naturally be decided only when an agreement on mutually acceptable reforms is reached.
In other words, a peace agreement can only be reached when the roots of conflict, which in the Philippine case include the need to minimize if not eradicate poverty, democratize political power, and fully realize Philippine Independence and sovereignty through authentic land reform and national industrialization, opening the political system to hitherto unrepresented and marginalized sectors, and crafting an independent foreign policy. A guerilla army fighting for such changes can only lay down its arms if these reforms are agreed upon, and not before. But the Arroyo and Aquino administrations made the NPA’s laying down its guns a condition for peace talks, rather than the consequence of a successful peace agreement.
In addition, any revolutionary guerrilla army that would lay down its arms prior to a peace agreement would not only be trading away the principles it has been fighting for; it would also be shutting the door to peace negotiations. What would be the point of any government’s negotiating with a group that has no means with which to bargain with the government it had been fighting? The demand that the NPA lay down its arms was not only a demand for its surrender; it was in this sense also a disguised refusal to even consider the reforms the NDFP has been advocating over the last 47 years.
Unlike the Arroyo and Aquino administrations, not only has the Duterte administration imposed no such conditions; it has also released the NDFP consultants in State custody, which was also a major sticking point in past peace talks. The result was goodwill all around, a successfully conducted first phase of the resumed peace talks, and positive prospects for a peace agreement based on mutually agreed upon socioeconomic and political reforms.
While military and paramilitary presence is still at issue in some communities, the successful conclusion of the first phase of the peace talks has allowed, albeit only temporarily, some measure of flexibility for the armed forces and the police to more actively address problems like the Abu Sayyaf, and to more aggressively pursue Duterte’s war on drugs.
But if the war being waged by armed social and political movements like the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and NDFP and the various Muslim separatist groups constitute the first front of the war against poverty, injustice, and political exclusion, the campaign against illegal drugs is turning into a problematic war that is rapidly metastasizing into another assault on human rights and the rule of law.
A repeat of the same abuse of human rights and due process that in past administrations was the favored approach to counter-insurgency, although directed against the drug trade today. It’s a war whose outcome is at best uncertain, as the experience of other countries like Thailand and Indonesia has demonstrated. What’s worse, however, is the damage it can continue to inflict on compliance with international human rights standards as well as the rule of law, through the apparent encouragement of extralegal violence against supposed drug pushers and even users by Duterte himself as well as his subalterns in the Department of Justice, the Office of the Solicitor General, and the Philippine National Police.
That the alarm bells are ringing this early — Duterte has hardly been two months in office — should be warning enough of the consequences: not only the country’s regression from a state in which respect for human rights was once recognized, at least officially, as everyone’s due, but also its descent into the chaos that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has warned would ensue as a consequence of the erosion of the rule of law and the declared administration policy of presuming the guilt rather than innocence of those accused of involvement in the drug trade.
Not only does Duterte now have the lessons of the last eight weeks to help him reconsider a policy that in the long run is unlikely to lead to his hoped-for result (a drug-free Philippines within six months), he also has the opportunity — may he have the insight — to see the drug problem in the context of the urgent need for the implementation of those socioeconomic and political reforms that such groups as the CPP-NDFP and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have been fighting for, and which could change this country enough to help eradicate the drug menace.
In many ways like the rebellions and uprisings that have haunted the Philippines for centuries, the drug problem is rooted too in the same poverty, hopelessness and despair that dynastic rule and elite dominance have been inflicting for centuries on these isles of fear.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in the Business World
Sept. 2, 2016